2014 NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Preview, With a Dose of NBA History

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)

History

In an interesting twist, the Spurs franchise started in Dallas, as the Chaparalls, with the ABA in 1967. In 1973, they moved to San Antonio and became the Spurs. With the 1976 merger, the Spurs entered the NBA. Twenty division titles in thirty-eight NBA seasons showcases the Spurs consistency. George Gervin, Kevin Durant’s predecessor, was one of the premier scorers of the late 1970’s. The Spurs were thrown into the Eastern Conference with the merger, and it wasn’t until 1980 that San Antonio and Houston moved to the Western Conference. As we consider the imbalance of the two conferences since 2000, imagine an Eastern Conference that always included the Spurs.

The mid-1980’s were the only dry years down near the Alamo. David Robinson brought San Antonio back to life and the Spurs were back, going from a 21-win team to a 56-win club in 1989-90. Robinson and Sean Elliott led those Spurs teams throughout the 1990’s until an injury-riddled 1996-97 year resulted in then-GM Gregg Popovich taking over as coach early on in a season that ended with 20 wins, five more than the tanking Boston Celtics.

One ping-pong ball bounce later, the Spurs were gift-wrapped Tim Duncan as the unanimous number one overall choice in the 1997 draft. The Spurs have remained in the upper echelon of the West ever since, winning several championships, starting in 1999, and continuing on in 2003, 2005 and 2007. In last year’s finals, they came within one shot of winning yet another. Ahead of the curve in regard to international scouting, the Spurs swiped Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late in the draft. Their even-keeled triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have been through it all. As ever, they are led by the ageless and amiable Gregg Popovich.  They now have the rising Kawhi Leonard to help lead them in the future. Former Spurs assistant coaches now dot the NBA coaching landscape. Other franchises try and emulate the Spurs.

The Dallas Mavericks, like many of my friends, myself and my wife, were born in 1980. The NBA continued to expand westward and southward, and the Mavericks gave Texas a third team. From the very beginning, the Mavs played an up-tempo style, pushing the pace under Dick Motta, the precursor to coach’s Paul Westphal and George Karl. In the franchise’s fourth season, the young Mavs were led by Rolando Blackmon and Mark Aguirre. Detlef Schrempf was drafted 8th overall in the 1985 draft and the Mavericks now had the balance they’d needed. The mid-to-late 1980’s brought 50-win seasons.

In 1988, with the help of phenom center Roy Tarpley, who earned the Sixth Man of the Year award, the Mavs came within one game of winning the Western Conference, before dropping Game 7 to the Lakers. Injuries took the Mavs down soon after. Fat Lever’s knee. Roy Tarpley’s struggles with substance abuse and then a knee injury, short-circuited his career. The Mavericks were a lackluster team for most of the 1990’s, winning only 13 games in 1993-94. Don Nelson welcomed the arrival of Dirk Nowitzki in 2000, and the Mavericks became relevant again immediately. The 2001-02, Nelson and Nowitzki propelled the Mavericks into becoming the top offense in the NBA. The Mavs won 57 games, but folded in five games to the Sacramento Kings, led by the passing trio of Webber-Divac-Stojakovic. The next year, Dallas upped the total to 60 wins, and beat the Kings, before losing the Western Conference finals to the rival Spurs.

The Mavericks finally got to the Finals in 2005-06, by edging the Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the West Finals. Facing Dwayne Wade’s Heat in the Finals, the Mavericks took the first two games, before dropping a heartbreaker in Game 3, 98-96. The Mavs would go on to lose by a single point in Game 5, and the series ended in another nail-biter, a three-point loss that clinched the series for Wade, Shaq, Antoine Walker and company. This series was Wade’s pinnacle of his career. He averaged 35 ppg, while penetrating at will. Still a stunning number, Wade took 97 free-throws over the course of those six games.

Dallas followed the Finals loss with a remarkable 67-win regular season in 2006-07. Then came the Golden State Warriors and one of the more indelible playoff upsets in recent memory. The “We Believe” Warriors took out a shell-shocked Mavs team in six games. In the ensuing years, several solid seasons ended in early playoff disappointment. In 2010-11, Rick Carlisle led the Mavs to 57 wins, and the defensive stalwarts Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and an aging but effective Jason Kidd helped provide Nowitzki with the balance his teams had always lacked. The Mavs made the NBA universe happy be knocking off the newly-developed trio in Miami in six games. Dirk got his revenge on Wade, and the Mavs had their taste of glory.

Travel won’t be an issue for San Antonio and Dallas in this all Texas clash.

This Year and a Prediction

Wow. I didn’t mean to write a recent NBA history book. Now that I’ve emerged from that rabbit hole, how does this year look? The Spurs remain quietly dominant. Just going about their business by playing their entire roster, and keeping their elder statesman out of harm’s way. Not a single player averaged 30 minutes per game. Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills both took steps toward stardom. Has a team ever won 62 games more easily? The Mavs, meanwhile, were not expected to win more than 40-45 games. Instead, they came through with 49, edging out the upstart Suns, thanks to a highly effective Monta Ellis, who paired well with Nowitzki and Vince Carter. The surprising breakthrough of the long-armed Brandan Wright helped Dallas off the bench. This series will be over quickly. The Spurs won’t mess around. Determined to rest his starters, Popovich will probably threaten to leave the team if they don’t sweep Dallas.

Darko Index Predicts: Spurs in 4.

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Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)

History

The Houston Rockets came into the NBA by way of San Diego, in 1967. Four year later, they were in Houston, where Rockets belong, because that’s where NASA is. They won the West in 1981 and 1986. In both years, the Rockets lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, each in six games. The Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. Ralph Sampson and Olajuwon were known as the twin towers, because they were both exceedingly tall. Injuries to Sampson and substance abuse issues with their guards wiped Houston from the top of the West for several years. Olajuwon brought the Rockets franchise back to relevance in the early 1990’s. In 1992-93, the Rockets won 55 games and made a dent in the playoffs, by beating the Clippers in the first round.

The next season, Houston began “launching” (oh the puns) with Vern Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Mario Elie leading their long-range offense. In the 1993 Playoffs, Houston started their run by beating Clyde Drexler and the Blazers. They ended the season by beating Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks in a memorable seven-game series. Houston repeated the following season, giving them back-to-back championships by sweeping the young Shaq-led Orlando Magic in four games. Houston had some success in the mid-to-late-1990’s, but fell to the Sonics in 1996, and to the Jazz in 1997. Stockton-to-Malone, Stockton-to-Malone, Stockton-to-Malone. What a drab offense those Jazz teams ran. Houston fell into a malaise in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, too good for the lottery, yet not good enough to get out of the first round. In 2009, behind the combo of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, they matched up with the Blazers again, surviving that series before losing to the Lakers in seven games.

The James Harden era began in 2012. The Rockets landed center Dwight Howard last summer. Harden, Howard and Chandler Parsons have Rockets fans hopeful again.

Portland fans have had a remarkable run of success over the years with their franchise. Between 1976 and 2003, the Blazers missed the playoffs only once. On the other hand, the Blazers lost in the first round of the playoffs in 18 of those 26 years. What a brutal stretch for those same fans.

The Blazers won their only championship in 1977. A 49-win regular season made Portland an underdog in the West Finals. Blazermania swept the Pacific Northwest as the Bill Walton-led crew upset Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers in four straight, before outlasting the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals.

1989-1992 brought more Blazer obsession, with Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and Jerome Kersey bringing 59-wins, 63-wins, and then 57-win seasons. The Super Nintendo basketball game Bulls vs. Blazers came out in 1992.

After years of steady but uninspiring 44-50 win seasons, the Blazers were again contenders in the late 1990’s. The 1999-2000 team won 59 games. The lineup was loaded, with Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Pippen, Steve Smith and Damon Stoudamire. That group came within one game of the NBA Finals, before collapsing in epic fashion to the Lakers. Since then, the Blazers have not won a playoff series.

The Blazers are now entering a new era, led by sharpshooting point guard Damion Lillard and the last bastion of the mid-range game, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. This year’s Blazers are easy to get behind, with the versatile Nic Batum at small forward and Wesley Mathews occasionally lighting It up from deep as well.

I interviewed my friend Michael Heald earlier in the year, about Portland and this included some Blazers history. http://darkoindex.com/2014/01/08/qa-part-one-old-friend-michael-heald-on-the-city-of-portland-and-its-blazers/

This Year and a Prediction

The Blazers were one of the best stories in basketball over the first two months of the season, starting off 24-5. Regression was coming, as the three-point shooting numbers were unsustainable, and the schedule had been exceedingly generous early on. The Blazers stumbled but regained their trajectory and finished with 54 wins. However, a 13-10 record in their final 23 games isn’t inspiring a ton of confidence. Like Golden State and Dallas, the Blazers feasted on sub-.500 opponents, going 33-6 in those matchups. On the flipside, they went 21-22 in plus-.500 match-ups. The Rockets, meanwhile, went 25-19 in those plus-.500 games. The Rockets peaked much later in the season, going 25-11 over their final 36 games. This match-up is fairly even, as most 4 vs. 5 matchups are. Both teams have weaknesses. It may come down to three-point shooting, and Dwight Howard’s ability to stay out of foul trouble.

Darko Index Predicts: Rockets in 7.

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Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)

History

The Clippers have been the West Coast’s version of the Nets. Living in the shadow of their brethren. The Clippers have always been either ignored or disgraced over their history. The franchise was born in Buffalo in 1970, made its way out west to San Diego in 1978 and landed in Los Angeles in 1984. Since 1984, the Clippers have made it to the playoffs on six occasions. The Clips advanced to the second round in 2006 and in 2012. That is a teaspoon of success, if you’re measuring.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have given the Clippers their first 50-win season in franchise history. Clippers fans couldn’t be happier that this year coincides with the worst season the Lakers have ever endured.

Golden State has seen glory days throughout the decades. The franchise originated in Philadelphia, as the Philadelphia Warriors, in 1946. This team joined the NBA in 1949. The team drafted Wilt Chamberlain a decade later. You may have heard of him. He was very tall and scored 100 points in a single game. He also claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women.

Unfortunately, the NBA was in its infancy, and there was no video footage of this game, nor of all Wilt’s sexcapades. If there were clips of the basketball, most of them would look the same. Some little guy in tight shorts passes to the behemoth in the middle (Chamberlain was 7’1” in an era of much shorter NBA players than today), who then leaps and casually tosses in a four-foot finger roll or a lay-up. Not to dismiss Wilt’s greatness, but he simply towered over everyone he played against. Even Bill Russell (6’9”) was four inches shorter than Wilt.

The Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962, stayed for nine years and then headed out to Oakland, renaming themselves the Golden State Warriors, in 1971. Golden State had a great run in the 1970’s, led by Rick Barry, Butch Beard and Jamaal Wilkes. Barry, who famously shot his free-throws underhand, averaged over 30 ppg in 1974-75, the year the Warriors claimed their first and only NBA championship. The Warriors, coached by Al Attles, won 48 regular season games. In an era preceding the three-pointer, Barry was one of the better shooters of the era. Other Warrior greats include Nate Thurmond, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin, and Tim Hardaway.

From 1988-1994, the Warriors briefly flirted with success. The up-tempo stylings of Coach Don Nelson led the Warriors to advancing beyond the first round in 1989 and 1991, but the “Run TMC” era ended in bittersweet fashion. If you want to stretch it to include some recent Warriors, Baron Davis was about as beloved as any Warrior for a nice stretch including 2004-2008. This year’s edition of the Warriors are the first team to get back to the 50-win plateau since 1994.

Stephen Curry brings a new level of optimism to the Bay Area faithful as the Warriors franchise moves forward.

This Year and a Prediction

The loss of Andrew Bogut seriously hampers what might have been a very evenly matched series between the Clippers and the Warriors. Bogut’s defensive expertise on the interior, combined with Andre Iguodala’s lock-down perimeter defense have elevated Golden State’s defense into a top-5 crew when healthy. Now that Bogut is sidelined with a fractured rib, the Warriors will have to go small, inserting the unheralded and versatile Draymond Green into the frontcourt. Power forward David Lee, whose offensive abilities are often overshadowed by his defensive liabilities, has been dealing with lingering shoulder issues. Young wingman Klay Thompson, already a weapon with his outside shot, has developed into a well-rounded offensive player whose defensive exploits are already well-known. The Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a litany of above-average shooters surrounding them. Defensively, DeAndre Jordan has matured and complicates the opposing penetration. I would love to say the Steph Curry can average 35 points per game, and will get just enough defense from Iguodala, Green, and Thompson to make this a very compelling series. I would love to say the Warriors shouldn’t be counted out. I would love to say Warriors in 6, but it seems like too much to ask without Bogut. Doc Rivers is a great coach. Mark Jackson is a very good motivator, but he doesn’t always make the wisest in-game adjustments.

Darko Index Predicts: Clippers in 7.

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Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)

History

I don’t have the mental capacity to keep researching and writing at the moment. The playoffs start tomorrow, so here’s the quick and dirty version. The Thunder were mercilessly stolen from Seattle and brought to Oklahoma City. The fans are loud in OKC, so they call themselves Loud City. I like how they stay standing until the first Thunder basket of every game. The Seattle franchise was a proud one. They originated in 1967, and lasted until they were stolen in 2008. They won a championship in 1979, won conference titles in 1978, 1979, and in 1996. The mid-1990’s Sonics were wildly entertaining. Gary Payton was wildly entertaining. Shawn Kemp was an earlier, nastier version of Blake Griffin. The Sonics were incredibly fun to watch. So fun, that they would be stolen and relocated in 2008.

Kevin Durant is the history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook picked up the wildly entertaining torch from Gary Payton. With Durant and Westbrook, Serge Ibaka is determined to make some new history in Oklahoma City.

Memphis was originally in Vancouver, which is why they are called the Grizzlies. Vancouver’s brief fling with the NBA lasted from 1995-2001. Those teams never won more than 23 games. It’s a shame. Vancouver is such a beautiful city. It really deserves another chance. I’m not sure what happened there. Shareef Abdur-Rahim is about all that anyone seems to recall about the Vancouver Grizzlies. Only three years after moving to Memphis, the Grizzlies won 50 games, Safe to say Hubie Brown knew what he was doing as the coach. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies never got out of the first round of the playoffs in those early days. Since 2010, the Grizzlies have been remodeled and remain one of the toughest defensive teams in the Association. Stalwarts Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph provide the “Grit and Grind” frontcourt, but the heart and soul of Memphis remains Tony Allen, one of the nastiest perimeter defenders of the last five years in the NBA. Point guard Mike Conley has continued his upward trajectory over the last few years.

This Year and a Prediction

With Marc Gasol, Memphis went 40-19. Without Gasol, the Grizzlies were 10-13. With Russell Westbrook, the Thunder went 34-12. Without Westbrook, OKC went 25-11. What does this prove? Marc Gasol is absolutely essential to the success of the Grizzlies, while Kevin Durant can show his MVP abilities (for at least 36 games) with or without Westbrook. Memphis will not be able to stop Durant. They may be able to slow down Westbrook, who is still less than 100%. The improvement of Ibaka’s jumper and the three-point shooting of Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Jeremy Lamb will make it much tougher for Memphis’ stifling defense to continuously put them in a position to win. Zach Randolph will have to deal with Perkins and Collison down low. When Randolph is negated, the pressure on Mike Conley and Mike Miller will rise. OKC is just too deep and versatile defensively and Durant can get his own shot. Many close games, but it will be awfully tough for Memphis to upset OKC.

Darko Index Predicts: Thunder in 6. 

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2014 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview, With a Dose of NBA History

Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)

Location and History

Indianapolis. Drive just outside the city. Grain. Cornfields. Soybeans. Rural Poverty and the farming life. Hoosiers. Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum. 1967. Larry Bird’s childhood in French Lick. The ABA. Twenty years before Reggie Miller was drafted.

Atlanta gets a team. A franchise that moved from Buffalo to the booming metropolis of Moline, Illinois, then to Milwaukee, then St. Louis for several years. Bob Petit and the St. Louis Hawks. Celtics-Hawks NBA Finals in 1957. Petit was interviewed by Simmons recently. Petit speaks with a great Louisana drawl. Then Atlanta gets a team in 1968.

Dominique and Doc Rivers. Reggie Miller, Chuck Person, and Rik Smits. Both franchises have been all over the map. Indiana’s history of basketball love. The relationship with the fans in Indy has been rekindled as we’re now almost a decade removed from the Malice at the Palace. Hawks fans have been famously ambivalent toward their teams over the years. Though Philips Arena can get loud in April and May.

This Year and a Prediction

The story of the Pacers regular season has been two-fold. The first half: Pacers pick-up where they left off last June and dominate the competition early. A 16-1 start. Holding teams to under 85 points on a regular basis. Defensive mastery. Stephenson becomes a catalyst on offense. Everything going according to plan. 46-13 record through March 2nd. However, in a “What have you done for me lately?” world, everyone questions the Pacers in mid-April because they’ve fallen off a cliff over the last six weeks. What does it mean? They were tired. They created an atmosphere of perfectionism that was unsustainable. Paul George’s ascension on the offensive end, particularly his three-point shooting, was unsustainable when you consider the absolute maximum effort he always gives on the defensive end. For all of the criticism James Harden gets about his defense, he saves his energy for those isolation possessions and the Rockets offense is rewarded. George is still learning how to pace himself.

The Hawks without Al Horford (who played 29 games before succumbing to injury) are not a playoff team. They are in the playoffs, because the Knicks and Cavs couldn’t get their act together in time, and because six Eastern Conference teams were planning for the future. I love Paul Millsapp and Kyle Korver. This Hawks team will shoot 25 three-pointers a game, with Pero Antic stepping outside the arc and rendering Roy Hibbert barely usable, but this just means more rest for Hibbert, leading into the second round.

Darko Index Predicts: Pacers in 5.

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Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)

Location and History

Chicago is a basketball mecca. Michael Jordan and the birth of the modern American sports icon. Say what you will about the aftereffects of one-on-one isolation-heavy basketball that followed the Jordan-led Bulls championship dominance, but the defensive side of the ball was always the root of their success. Jordan and Pippen were the greatest perimeter defenders of their era. Chicago fans are some dedicated folks and they’ve been rewarded handsomely through the years. Open court steals led to breakaway dunks. The Miami Heat of the past three years, with Lebron and Wade, have carried that defensive torch.

Ironically, Washington’s franchise history started in Chicago. The Chicago Packers were the first NBA expansion team, created in 1961. Two years later, they moved to Baltimore and the Baltimore Bullets were born. Gradually, they made their way from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland. The Capital Bullets foreshadowed the Washington Bullets. The 1970’s were to kind to the D.C. fans, as center Wes Unseld led the Bullets to six division titles, four conference titles and, finally, the franchise’s lone championship in 1978. In 1997, after years of mediocrity, the team chose a new name. The title “Washington Bullets” was a constant reminder to D.C.’s citizenry that the murder-rate due to gun-violence was an epidemic. It was then that the Wizardry began. Unfortunately, the cauldron-stirring resulted in little success.

This Year and a Prediction

Tom Thibodeau and Joakim Noah are simpatico. Defense first. Defense second. Relentless commitment to stopping the opposition. Game plan and execution. The well-documented loss of Derrick Rose to injury and the trade of Luol Deng seemed only to reinforce that commitment. Fortunately for Thibs and Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson have the same level of dedication. The December addition of D.J. Augustin sent few waves through the Association. Four months later, Augustin’s shooting, in addition to the spectacular passing of Noah as point-center, has saved Chicago’s offense.

While John Wall is a tremendous talent and a pleasure to watch zip around the court, and while the corner-three-point expertise of Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster are noteworthy, the Wizards will be depending heavily on the banged up knees of Nene and the shot-creation of Ray Allen-disciple Bradley Beal. The Wizards are an enigmatic bunch. They have played to the level of their competition all year. It seems unlikely that they can muster four wins against the highly-disciplined Bulls. This will be an ugly series. John Wall will lose his shit when he doesn’t get the foul calls he wants. His lack of maturity, combined with a lack of a healthy post-presence will be Washington’s downfall. Barring some crunch time Andre Miller wizardry and some health potion for Nene, Chicago will stifle the Wizards into submission, in some very close, heartbreaking games for the Wizards.

Darko Index Predicts: Bulls in 6.

***

 

Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)

Location and History

Canada’s lone NBA representative, the Raptors played in the Skydome from 1995-1999. I did not know this. Through a draft day trade in 1998, Vince Carter put Toronto on the NBA map; “Air Canada” and the team played in the Air Canada Center. Toronto led the NBA in attendance in 1998, and won their first playoff series in 2001. The team is called the Raptors because Jurassic Park made dinosaurs cool. Chris Bosh was the team’s leader throughout the 2000’s. He was somewhat bird-like with his enormous wingspan.

Like Indiana, Brooklyn’s team history involves the ABA. The New Jersey Americans were founded in 1967. After moving to New York and then the NBA during the 1976 merger, the Nets moved back down the Jersey turnpike to Exit 16W and the Meadowlands. During the thirty-five years in New Jersey, the Nets had some success. In 1983-84, Daryl Dawkins, Buck Williams, Michael Ray Richardson, and company won the franchise’s first playoff series. The mid-80’s were fill of upheaval in Jersey. Richardson was banned from the league after his third drug offense and Daryl Dawkins had continual back problems that derailed his career.

After struggling through the late 1980’s, the Nets drafted the immensely talented Derrick Coleman (the precursor to Chris Webber and DeMarcus Cousins) and the sparklingly creative point guard Kenny Anderson. The team then added one of more tragic figures in NBA history, Drazen Petrovic. The Croatian shooting guard was brought in via trade with Portland and helped rekindle the franchise with his profilic long-range shooting. Petrovic shot a remarkable 45% from distance in 1992-03, averaging over 22 ppg, and making third-team All-NBA. After only three years with the Nets, Petrovic was killed in a car accident.

The Nets were resurrected in the late 1990’s. As a Celtics fan, I remember those Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin/Kerry Kittles teams were remarkably physical and generally drove Celtics fans crazy just as much as Antoine Walker’s shot selection. Kenyon Martin always took Antoine out of the equation and the Celtics offense disintegrated. However, one of my favorite sports fan moments: Eastern Conference Finals, 2001, Game 3. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the balcony of the Garden that afternoon.

***

This Year and a Prediction

Toronto and Brooklyn both started the 2013 season slow. Injuries and the adjustment process took their toll on Brooklyn early. Rudy Gay’s shot selection and a lack of depth resulted in a lackluster November and early December for the Raptors. GM Masai Ujuri made yet another wise trade, following the pattern he’d established in Denver, and sent Gay to Sacramento, which had three important effects: 1) Kyle Lowry had the ball in his hands and free reign to push the pace; 2) DeMar DeRozan channeled his inner Vince Carter and his confidence spiked; 3) the bench now had several very worth pieces in Vasquez, Salmons and the rugged Patrick Patterson. Toronto’s record following the trade: 42-22.

Perhaps most surprising among all of the unexpected numbers to come out of this year in Toronto: they finished with the 10th best defense in the NBA. Like the Wizards, the Raptors have turned into a very good defensive team. One caveat: 52 games against the Eastern Conference helps, as only 2 of the NBA’s top 10 most efficient offenses resided in the East.

Brooklyn’s season was reborn as the calendar turned to January. As you may have heard, they are 34-17 in 2014. Playing an unusually versatile lineup has resulted in the Nets ability to guard the pick-and-roll better than almost any team in the Association. The length of Shaun Livingston, Andrei Kirilenko and Alan Anderson, among others, allows the Nets to defend the perimeter with ease. The only way Toronto can maintain their offensive efficiency against Brooklyn’s defense is to get a huge series from developing post-presence Jonas Valanciunas. Kevin Garnett will have something to say about that. One last run for Pierce and KG. I’ve always enjoyed Kirilenko. I love the Livingston storyline. Against all odds, I have to say, “Go Nets!”

Darko Index Predicts: Nets in 6

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Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)

Location and History

As far as history, there ain’t much to say about either of these franchises. Miami joined the NBA as an expansion team in 1988. Maybe you remember Glen Rice, the smooth-shooting scorer in the Heat’s early days? Maybe you recall Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner? Other than dunks, he more closely resembled former-Celtic Greg Minor than Michael Jordan. Here’s all you need to know: Wikipedia’s Miami Heat entry devotes all of one paragraph to the years 1988-2003. This doesn’t make much sense, as the Heat had several very good seasons in the mid-1990′s, led by Alonzo Mourning and Jamal Mashburn. Anyway, 2003 was the year they drafted Dwayne Wade. You may have heard about Miami’s recent history. I’ll spare you the details. One piece that is sometimes forgotten amidst the franchise’s recent run, Wade led them to a Finals victory in 2006 over the Mavericks. As far as location, Miami fans are notoriously flaky.

The Charlotte Bobcats have been a punchline in NBA circles since entering the league in 2004. Don’t get this franchise confused with the Hornets, who entered the league in 1988 with Miami. That franchise is now known as the New Orleans Pelicans. To add a bit more confusion, the Bobcats have chosen to re-brand themselves as the Charlotte Hornets starting next season. The Bobcats were almost named the Charlotte Dragons back in 2004. A trade for Goran Dragic would have been inevitable, right? This year marks the second (and last) season the Bobcats will be in the playoffs. They made it in 2010 with folk hero Gerald Wallace diving all over the place, and Tyson Chandler and Stephen Jackson providing support. Bobcats fans have been given a lump of coal for the holidays every year. Charlotte is also located in one of the most aggressively college-basketball-loving regions in the country.

This Year and a Prediction

I would love to say the Bobcats have some serious fight in them. I would love to emphasize their 6th-ranked defense. I would love to spread the Al Jefferson love. I would love to call Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist very useful defenders. I would love to say that Charlotte has been sneaking up on everyone all season and that they can make this series a very enticing storyline that the national media would soak up in a second. However, I can’t say that. One win is all they can muster. One lone home win for those traumatized fans.

Darko Index Predicts: Heat in 5.  

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What A Season It Was, Wasn’t and Could Have Been: Reflecting on the 2013-14 NBA Season

An inevitable trend often overwhelms the writing and thinking around professional sports. It extends into television, music, literary and film criticism, but it appears most widespread in sports writing, where the jocular and fraternal atmosphere often still pervades. How many female writers do you know of who write about the NBA?

The tendency for group-think escalates when everyone reads everyone else and wants to align themselves with their peers, or the wise pundits. It happens by osmosis, too. You read enough and you’ll see the trends. We are all heavily influenced by the intake of all that information. Consensus-building in the internet age. And then the predictable “myth-busting” that ensues. What happens when all myths have been busted? What happens when truth is impossible to define? Nobody is right and everybody is right. Oh yes, and little has been edited or fact-checked. This very piece has been posted and only after I read it again did it get edited. And then once more a few hours later. Many pieces are never looked at again. As a writer, I’ve not only stopped being precious with my words, I’ve gotten careless. Where is the balance between spending the time it takes to create something and making it relevant to the current moment?

Most of the time, NBA lovers ignore this moment, the point when the regular season ends and the playoffs are days away from beginning. The fourteen teams that don’t make the big dance get cast aside, rather than discussed. If I didn’t write this now, nobody would have any desire to reflect on the regular season in two weeks, when the first round is reaching its zenith, with it’s four Game 6′s in one night. It’s impossible to keep up with it all…

Chaos is one way to describe it. The reaction to all of this consensus building is to rely heavily on numbers to prove your opinion. To make your case, as if every sports debate must come heavily armed with myth-busting facts. ESPN’s endless chat shows exacerbates the problem. The binary is exhausting to this sports-interested writer. Truth? You can’t handle the truth! That Jack Nicholson scene from A Few Good Men would pop up at the Garden every 4th quarter just before Pierce would put the team on his back. Truth. It’s out there. If only we might stumble upon it…

“It” Teams

One team becomes the hot topic of the current moment. In a content-crazed atmosphere, the new “it” team, like its cousins the “it” band and the “it” show, is constantly changing.

In November, the Blazers and Suns were mentioned about as often as Lena Dunham circa 2012 and Dave Chapelle circa 2005. On the flipside, the Nets, Knicks and Lakers were dumped on more than Charlie Brown in a Peanuts rainstorm.

Teams exist as existential lightning rods, rather than as collections of players and coaches, attempting to build something collective. In part, the Nets, Knicks and Lakers were dumped on for their failure to build something organically. The Yankee-bashing, and now Dodger-bashing, that takes place around Major League Baseball is inevitable just as the Laker-bashing and Knick-bashing becomes an archetype. The collective enemy is established. The sports fan can point to payroll, can point to seemingly inept decision making in the front office, can mock the fan-bases of those teams. When any game involves those teams, the sports fan can vent his/her frustration at the world and channel it all toward that one team they hate. Tribalism at its finest.

This is neither new, nor is it a horrible concept that we must get rid of. Throughout the world, fans of one soccer club detest another soccer club. There are deaths at some of these matches. The strong attachment to one team in some leaves unruly resentment towards another team in others. For me, the question boils down to this: If you could only do one, would you rather love your team, or hate your opponents?

When you go to an NBA arena or an MLB stadium and you are surrounded by a few loud and obnoxious haters, this choice becomes clearer. I usually choose loving my team, and my players. As I gain more distance from my childhood and that all-encompassing obsession I had with the Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots, I find myself loving more teams, and more players. The circle has indeed grown. It doesn’t mean I will ever be happy for Kobe Bryant and his achievements. I’m still a Celtics fan, and he’s still a Laker. It does mean I can appreciate LeBron James in a way that I couldn’t in 2010. It helps that the Celtics won’t be competing against the Heat this year.

***

As the calender turned to January…then February…then March…and now April:

  • mentions of Brad Stevens‘ genius declined
  • increasing mentions of the growing genius of Jeff Hornacek and Terry Stotts.
  • injuries continued to dominate the headlines through the season’s first half: too numerous to list here.
  • the trade rumors involving Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, and Omer Asik waxed and waned.

In the East:

  • the Sixers and Bucks became laughably bad.
  • the Sixers went from bad to worse with some questionable trades at the deadline, leaving them with a Spanish-league-level basketball team. Sam Hinkie becomes the head shark in the tanking pool.
  • Michael Carter-Williams, who was declared the future of the league in early November, is not mentioned anymore.
  • NBA writers continued to exercise their mental and linguistic powers in order to determine who were the legitimate contenders in the Western Conference–the increasing focus on analytics (and its implication of factual evidence, which is somewhat real) became apparent.
  • NBA pundits continue to emphasize how unlikely it is that anyone other than the Heat and Pacers can contend in the East.
  • NBA pundits and writers continue to focus on how dominant the West is (true, though heavily influenced by injuries as well).
  • Which results in no less than five Eastern Conference teams gaining praise and attention in the ensuing months of February, March and now April. At season’s end, these teams have now played a full slate of 52 games against their Eastern Conference foes.
  • The Nets go from a laughingstock in December (remember the Jason Kidd drink spillage?) to a lovably unorthodox team in April; a team that arguably now has the power to dethrone the East’s elite, having swept the season series with the Heat.
  • The Bulls elicit sympathy the moment Derrick Rose goes down to injury yet again. The Bulls trade away Luol Deng. The Bulls continue to play some of the best team defense in the league and slowly rise from the ashes. The Jordan-led Bulls played with a target that might as well have been stitched on to the backs of their uniforms. These Rose-less Bulls are never the target. The Bulls love grows. Fans of defense and tough-minded players, like myself, heap the praise. Joakim Noah actually gets a few MVP votes. And why shouldn’t he?
  • The Raptors become everyone’s favorite new team. The punching bag known as Rudy Gay (the narrative continues, even when he plays well for the mediocre and rebuilding Kings) leaves and the electric and enigmatic Kyle Lowry becomes Chris Paul. DeMar DeRozan channels his inner Vince Carter, circa 2000. Toronto’s small market, Canadian status makes them even more lovable.
  • Terrence Ross scored 51 points in a game this season. This may be the strangest fact of the season.
  • The Wizards gained in popularity with their youthful and exciting young guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Wizards learn the secret of the corner three-pointer. Trevor Ariza is reborn. Andre Miller is added for on-court professorial wisdom, despite his well-known eccentricity. Nene‘s knee concerns, as well as the lack of credibility anyone wants to give Randy Wittman, keep most fans from feeling confident about the playoffs. Even when the Wizards make the playoffs, the league refuses to let them feel good.
  • The Bobcats will make the playoffs. This is monumental after the previous decade in Charlotte. The Bobcats will finish 7th in the East thanks to low-post expert Al Jefferson (read Lee Jenkins’ profile of Big Al) and the teaching of new coach Steve Clifford who has willing defenders in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, and the rejuvenated Chris Douglas-Roberts, as well as the paint-clogging stylings of Bismack Biyombo off the bench.
  • For the first season in recent memory, especially after the trade deadline, nobody talks about the Celtics.

In the West (warning: mental images of NBA players wearing women’s clothing below)

  • The Blazers were the surprise team. Sexy factor: bikini. (Robin Lopez in a nice Blazers-red bikini?)
  • The Suns were the surprise team. Sexy factor: thong. (Eric Bledsoe in a thong?)
  • After Andre Iguodala returned from a 12-game absence around the holidays, the Warriors were the surprise team. Sexy factor: mini-skirt. (Draymond Green in a mini-skirt? This is especially fitting because Draymond plays with so much physicality)
  • Most recently the Rockets and Clippers became the less-surprising, “surprise” teams. Sexy factor: long, flowing dress. (Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan wearing the same style of calf-length something or over)
  • The Spurs and their 19-game winning streak, surprised nobody. The fickle, “I want NEW!” NBA fan without an attention span chose not to pay attention. Sexy factor: khaki pants. (Duncan and Pop in matching dockers, though Parker and Kawhi are behind the curtain.)
  • An early injury to Marc Gasol kept Memphis below .500 early, and then they slowly and steadily wore away the competition over the second-half of the season, thanks to some offensive help from Courtney Lee and a healthy Mike Miller. James Johnson even showed what he can do on the wing. Memphis will head into the playoffs as hot as anyone (Sexy factor: low, but the lighting is perfect)
  • Dallas kept beating mediocre and bad teams with their splendid offensive chemstry. The Rebirth of Monta Ellis, now in a comfortable environment where he can drive at will, gradually wears away at the me-first reputation Monta used to have. (Sexy factor: moderate. Monta in tight pants but Dirk, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion in corduroys)
  • Phoenix just kept winning…until they come up a teeny bit short in the end. The most exciting 47-48 win team in NBA history, except for maybe the 2007-08 Warriors team squad that also barely missed out on the playoffs. The Dragon’s injured ankle may well have been the difference over the final five games.
  • Corey Brewer of the Wolves scored 51 points in a game this season. This may be the strangest fact of the season.
  • The Timberwolves became the team that all analytics-hounds, and most Midwestern NBA fans not from Chicago or Indiana, lament. The team that “could have been.” If only they could ever play in the half-court. Those delicious Kevin Love outlet passes don’t work from the post. Team point differential will never be mentioned so frequently ever again. Instead of winning 50 games, the Wolves will win 41. If only they were in the East…
  • For the first season in memory, nobody talks about the Lakers.

Conference Disparity

  • The East truly was the L-east this year. The cross-conference record, which is the better indicator of the disparity than overall record, because overall record is influenced by strength of conference, shows how lopsided it has been. All but one of the season’s cross-conference games have been played Wednesday night’s Detroit-OKC match-up is the final).
  • Record: West teams: 283 wins. East teams: 166 wins.
  • The 2003-04 West was slightly more dominant than the 2013-14 West, however. In other words, it has been slightly worse in recent history. That 2003-04 season resulted in a .633 winning percentage for the West, while this year they have won at a .630 clip.
  • Factor in a healthy Al Horford, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Larry Sanders, and Brook Lopez, and things would have been much different. (okay, I couldn’t resist a partial list)

Tank Talk

  • Why re-hash any of it, now that the season is mercifully ending for the dregs of the East?
  • Orlando and Milwaukee, and even Boston in the last two months, got very little criticism for their horrendous play, probably because nobody expected anything after the Bucks injuries hit early, and it was clear that the Magic couldn’t score. The Celtics get a lot of NBA internet love (which I contribute to in some tiny way), but it is surprising how little tank-talk there was once it was acknowledged how bad this team was.
  • The Sixers received 99% of the criticism. Probably because they have such a clearly defined path toward rebuilding. Also, because they tied the record for consecutive losses in a season (26). Also because Hinkie forced everyone to consider just how valuable a second round pick is within the rules of the new CBA.

Lottery Fixing

  • Related to all the tank talk was all of the “How do we fix the lottery?” and age-restriction debating. I’ll leave all of that out for now.
  • The draft lottery is on May 20th.
  • The draft will be on June 26. The Celtics will have a lottery pick, very likely in the top 6

 

Still…it was a great season for the NBA, and for the NBA internet, and for the internet, and for the internet NBA, and for all of the fans of the roundball all around the world. Well…except for maybe the Lakers fans.

Check back for playoff previews in the coming days….

***

Find Jonah Hall here and at www.splicetoday.com. On Twitter @darkoindex.

 

 

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